My long-standing dream of blasting across the crisp white sand dunes of Glamis in southern California has been gnawing away at my psyche for the past decade. And here I am, standing at the top of a gorgeous, wind-crafted hook of a dune on the edge of the Mexican border, looking back towards my beautifully crafted tracks, which weave their way up its sharp face.
The irony, though, is that the adventure to my lookout post wasn’t handled in a sand rail or even an aggressively prepared off-road vehicle. It was done within the confines of the stunning, luxurious, handcrafted sumptuousness that is the interior of the most powerful SUV currently on the market. Welcome to the Bentley Bentayga – a car that the UAE has seemingly been waiting for all its life.
In a Bentley, we have come to expect the effortless; performance that sucks the air from your lungs under full acceleration, yet completely at ease and happy tottering around the urban environment on tick over. Utterly composed chassis dynamics – not too harsh, not too soft, just perfect. So perfect, even the likes of Jaguar must be slightly uneasy with another brand encroaching on one of its core skill sets. These days Bentley has that game licked, and the Bentayga doesn’t fail to deliver at all. Well, it could maybe do with a valve-operated exhaust system to release a touch of that sonorous noise we all know the newly re-engineered, Crewe-built 6.0L, twin-turbo W12 would be capable of singing if given its voice. Bentley, however, says its customers don’t want to hear it.
You do, though, forget all about the lack of audio theatrics when you slowly roll onto the throttle. Pulling away from the busy streets during morning rush hour in Palm Springs, and heading due south into the forever-driveable canyons, the speed at which the Bentayga collects digits is unfathomable. It has been a while since I have been behind the wheel of an SUV this capable. I’m talking 0 to 100kph in 4.1 seconds, and mid-range grunt to embarrass most of the finest horses coming out of any Italian stable – slightly disconcerting at first, yet utterly addictive when you figure out the rest of the car is with you.
There’s some very clever trickery going on here, and it’s called the Bentley Dynamic Ride – a world-first system, using the power of a 48-volt electric active-roll-control set-up. Keeping a watching brief as I breeze across the gorgeous ribbons of tarmac, the system does an incredible job of fooling you into believing you’re in a Continental, not driving an SUV with considerable amounts of heft.
Then the final piece of the puzzle: an interior that’s so stunningly well executed, one could confuse it for the finest tailoring traditions on Savile Row. I’m not exaggerating – the inside of the Bentayga is an incredibly special place, and one that should be applauded. The primary materials are soft and delightful to touch; the seats keep you buttoned up in all the right places, and after a good five hours behind the wheel, I eject myself as comfortably as I entered.
It’s also quite fortuitous that during stopovers and breaks to soak in the vistas, I can open the tailgate to make full use of the exquisite, integrated, Dh110,000 Mulliner hamper set, complete with refrigerator, bespoke fine china, cutlery, crockery and everything else an explorer could desire from their Bentley. It’s almost an imposition that I have to go to the effort of making my own tea.
After extolling the virtues of this all-new model, which in many respects is an extraordinary automobile, I suppose we need to discuss the elephant in the room. There’s certainly a round of applause to be made for the engineering teams, especially the ladies and gentlemen tucked away at the Pyms Lane factory in Crewe, ensuring the chassis is an equal to the fierce W12 throwing the Bentayga down road and up dune. But what of the dress she’s wearing?
The one car rolling around my head as I stand by the side of the road, poring over its exterior design details, is the first-generation Porsche Cayenne – a car that Porsche struggled to keep up with demand for, but one that was so unfeasibly ugly that its maker rushed through the second-generation design. And now look at it, 14 years later – you could even argue it has become quite attractive in its old age, so perhaps future generations of Bentayga will be easier on the eye, too.
Yes, it features all of the styling cues of a contemporary Bentley, clearly dictated by the brand committee, and delivered by design director, Stefan Sielaff, and his team. From the ultra-sharp Bentley power line and signature rear haunches (beautifully crafted in aluminium, I must add), to the four distinctive, floating, all-LED headlamps and that large matrix chain-mail grille, it certainly ticks all the brand visual boxes. It almost falls into line with the seemingly fashionable homogenous design directions carmakers like to take these days.
Yet oddly, this ensures the Bentayga lacks presence. I find myself double-taking the other examples on the road as I drive, checking that I’m following my colleagues across the gorgeous, barren Californian landscape, and not tracking a retired golfer in his new Audi Q7. For a car this special, and one that is supposedly designed to command attention, it seems to have very little to say for itself.
The design cues that make the Continental GT unique (themselves inspired by the classic, exceedingly rare R-Type Continental that was produced in the early 1950s) look like overkill here, almost like the Bentayga is some sort of Bentley greatest hits compilation. And there’s no escaping the inevitable conclusion that it must be impossible to design an actually beautiful SUV, because of the constraints of its necessarily boxy outline.
Still, it’s not as aesthetically offensive as the EXP-9 concept that was unveiled in 2012 at Geneva motor show. The swell of negative feedback from public and media alike sent Bentley’s designers back to the drawing board, and the Bentayga emerged three years later. It could have been worse, and Bentley’s loyal representatives maintain that customers and focus groups have been in raptures regarding its looks. But truth be told, demand for this thing would outstrip supply even if it looked like a SsangYong, because of its unique position as the fastest, most powerful, most luxurious SUV on the planet.
When you’re inside its sumptuous cabin, you can at least forget all about the oddball looks, because the Bentayga is incredible to drive. It feels like an old-school 1980s car; the type that was so over-engineered it felt like it was hewn from a single piece of granite, yet visually is a bit of a let-down. After a couple of days, I begin to accept the looks to some extent, but I’m pretty sure they won’t be a concern at all to every one of the 5,000 owners that Bentley proudly claims it has lined up (at a price tag starting from Dh955,000), ready to slide into that splendid driving seat and enjoy the view out across the sculpted bonnet and those very clever flow-formed wings.
Congratulations Bentley, you have a winner on your hands.